Flemish designer launches swing for disabled kids

“Everything I’ve seen in the playgrounds that’s designed for children with disabilities is cold, hard and made out of metal,” says Manu Vollens, co-founder of Thea Swing. “I wanted to create a swing that’s soft, lightweight and doesn’t draw unwanted attention.”

Five years ago, Vollens was an industrial design student at the University College of West Flanders. One semester, as part of a class project, he was tasked with designing a product for a person with a disability. That’s how he met Thea.

At the time, Thea was 12. When she was younger, she loved to swing in her garden, supported by one of her parents who would hold her in their lap. As she grew, this was no longer possible.

Due to a rare neurological disorder called Rett syndrome that affects only girls, Thea has little to no control over her physical movements, can’t speak and requires constant care.

Vollens says at first he did not know what to expect. “I never had any comparable experience because no one in my family has any disabilities,” he says. “I had to find a way to communicate with her and figure out the easiest solution so she could enjoy swinging again.”

Over the next few months, together with classmate Frederick De Pauw, Vollens designed several prototypes and paid visits to Thea’s home. “We would have her try out the swing,” he explains. “Thea communicates with real emotion; some prototypes would make her cry, while with others we saw her laughing.”

They used her responses as indications whether what they were doing was working or not.

The very first prototype was made out of Vollen’s old rucksack. “From the beginning, we wanted to use only fabrics to make the swing as lightweight as possible and give it a soft feel,” he says. “The point was to make it functional but also unobtrusive, so it wouldn’t look like a cumbersome special-needs product.”

The swing is only a seat, so they tested different ways of hanging it on a conventional swing set. They also sewed in Velcro fasteners so it could be easily rolled up and transported, and even attached support ribbons for Thea’s parents to swing her while maintaining eye contact.

Eventually, the two students got it right. “With the last design, we could see how excited Thea was about swinging,” Vollens says. “It was the best feedback we could hope for.”

At the end of the course, they gave Thea the final prototype. They then launched an online campaign to raise funds and managed to sell more swings.

Over the next few years, the two young designers drifted apart in pursuit of other opportunities, and production stopped. Eventually, Vollens landed a career as an innovation consultant, when a conversation with Vincent De Dobbeleer gave his old school project a new lease on life.

As a marketing manager for multinational corporations, De Dobbeleer has made a trade out of creating new companies and national branches. In 2014, he was chosen the Flemish Marketer of the Year by Trends magazine and the marketing organisation STIMA.

The experienced marketer quickly recognised the swing’s potential and decided to help Vollens launch Thea Swing. “There is no product like it available, but there is a real need for it,” he says. “We decided to put it on the market again, but the only way to do it right this time was to focus all our energy on it.”

They work on a bootstrap budget. Every swing is made to order, and, when demand is high, Vollen’s mum helps with the sewing. For a two-person company they have big dreams.

“Eventually we want to sell the swing all over Europe and the world,” De Dobbeleer says. “We already sold one in Canada, but first we need to make sure we can sustain ourselves.”

The feedback so far is positive. Thea Swing is active on social media and a new website was launched this month. The goal is to create a community where parents and caretakers can share their experiences with the product.

“We’re always telling people, ‘If you have an idea; if you can think of a similar product or have a need for it, just let us know,’” De Dobbeleer says. “It doesn’t stop at a swing for us.”

Recently, Vollens paid Thea’s family a visit. “I felt very welcome in their home,” he says. “Thea keeps using the original swing, and it still looks nice after all these years. That really shows we’ve made a quality product.”

This article was first published by Flanders Today

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